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Fall 2005 Table of Contents
Versión español de este artículo (Spanish Version)

Tyler Student Chosen for Braille Challenge

By Betty Waters, Staff Writer, Tyler Morning Telegraph

Reprinted with Permission

Abstract: Profile of Kassandra Cardenas, a blind elementary school student who represented Texas in the finals of the National Braille Challenge.

Key Words:Family, blind, visually impaired, deafblind, Braille, National Braille Challenge

A blind Tyler Independent School District second-grader left town Thursday to represent Texas in the finals of the only national academic competition for school-age Braille readers from the U.S. and Canada on Saturday in Los Angeles.

Woods Elementary pupil Kassandra Cardenas is one of 60 contestants, ages 6-19, invited to the 2005 National Braille Challenge Invitational, sponsored by the Braille Institute of America. "Kassie," as she is called, was picked out of more than 300 blind and visually impaired students from across the country in grades 1-12 who competed in the preliminary round of the fifth annual Braille Challenge to win a spot in the finals in California.

Blind since birth, "Kassie," 8, takes her disability in stride, confidently walking the hallways when school is in session and acting in class like any other student, except for using a cane, Braille textbooks and specialized equipment, such as a Braille notetaker and Braille printer. She is already very goal-oriented despite her young age. Kassie wants to win in the apprentice category open to first- and second-graders of the two-stage Braille Challenge. Another goal, she says, is to increase her Braille reading skills to 100 words per minute and ultimately she hopes to become a lawyer when she grows up.

Top prizes for first place in the apprentice category of the Braille Challenge are a $1,000 savings bond and a PAC Mate portable personal pocket computer device adapted with a Braille display for the visually impaired. It is valued at more than $4,000. The second-place winner will receive a $750 savings bond and the third-place winner will receive a $500 savings bond.

Contestants in the apprentice category will be tested in Braille reading comprehension, Braille spelling and proofreading. If Kassie wins, the child said she would put the money "in the bank I guess and save it maybe for my college."

To reach the final round of competition, she practiced her Braille skills over and over, then took a preliminary National Braille Challenge test at school administered by her teacher under strict guidelines last March.

"I had 25 minutes to complete the reading comprehension test. What I had to do was read three stories and answer questions, then if I had time I could proofread. I had time," Kassie said. "Then I took the spelling test. I had 25 minutes, 50 words and I did that on time. And then I took the proofreading test. I had 20 sentences and 25 minutes to correct the sentences."

She waited and waited and waited to hear how she did. Finally in early May a letter arrived, written in both Braille and regular print. Upon reading the letter, Kassie did not speak at first, then excitedly told her mother, Anabell Cardenas, "Moma, look in the mail." The letter invited the girl to the national competition.

Ms. Cardenas said, "I was real excited. I was real happy because I knew she waited for this."

Kassie next made a somber phone call telling one of her teachers, Elsie Rao, "I didn't pass." A moment later she confessed, "I'm kidding." The youngster and teacher of the visually impaired who has had Kassie under her wing for four years laughed and ecstatically burst into celebration.

Kassie received pats on the back, cheers and congratulations from other students when a school-wide announcement was made that she had made the finals.

In the following days Kassie very quickly settled back into Braille practice, this time for the finals with coaching from her teacher. She drilled on Braille skills two afternoons weekly after school during May and continued practicing after school dismissed for the summer. In the meantime, an anonymous donor in the community contributed funds for the trip to Los Angeles for Kassie, her mother, big sister and teacher for three days for the Braille Challenge and some sight-seeing.

The National Braille Challenge Invitational began in 2000 as a regional competition to promote Braille literacy among blind and visually impaired students in Southern California, then evolved into a national competition that also attracts contestants from Canada.

Kassie is the first Tyler ISD student to compete in the Braille finals. "She is the first student I've had who seriously concentrated on improving her Braille skills specifically for this contest," Ms. Rao said. "She is extremely bright, quite intelligent. I knew this when she was little bitsy. Early on, we (educators) began to see that she has a wonderful memory, good language skills and was able to figure out complex answers. She is an excellent reader and a good speaker."

Upon seeing those qualities in Kassie, educators at Woods Elementary wanted to challenge the girl, Ms. Rao said. She was placed in the gifted program and is able to compete with her sighted peers on an even basis.

"Never in my teaching career have I ever had one (pupil) that was this smart and learned this quickly," Ms. Rao said.

Kassie read on a second-grade level when school started last fall, but as the year progressed, she raised her reading skills to a sixth-grade level by the time school dismissed for the summer. Her favorite recreational reading is "Harry Potter" books in Braille. Kassie not only participates in regular classes to learn the same academics other children learn, but also takes part in special sessions for the blind and visually impaired. She learns Braille, how to use special equipment for the blind, social skills and assistance with orientation and mobility to teach her to function in a regular environment. She interacts with classmates, goes to parties, sang a solo at First Baptist Church's south campus recently and plans to start back to gymnastics.

Although visually impaired children usually don't have good motor skills, Kassie enjoys the challenge of tumbling, thinks the balance beam is fun and likes to do back-bends even though it is difficult for most visually impaired children to figure out where they are in time and space. Kassie is also bilingual. Although born in Tyler, she is fluent in Spanish and English since her mother is from El Salvador and her father from Mexico.

NATIONAL CONTESTANT: Kassandra Cardenas, blind since birth, is shown during a practice session using specialized equipment of a Braille notetaker and Braille writer for the National Braille Challenge Invitational. (Staff Photo by D.J.Peters)

Doctors anticipated a difficult birth and advised Ms. Cardenas to have an abortion, but she says she felt in her heart it was not the right thing to do and decided she would have the baby. Kassie was born blind, except for slight light perception. Surgery in an attempt to carry out a cornea transplant to enable her to see was unsuccessful.

A year or two ago Kassie, who wears eye prosthesis, went home after attending a production of a play in which Helen Keller's mother cried upon learning her baby girl was blind and deaf.

Kassie wanted to know if her mother was sad when she was born. "I told her when you were born, you were so pretty, so beautiful, I loved you very much, but I was sad because you are blind," Ms. Cardenas told her daughter. Kassie assured her mother, "It's okay; it's okay."

Kassie has grown into a youngster so independent and normal that her mother sometimes forgets she is blind. Ms. Cardenas is a wonderful mother because she encourages Kassie to be independent despite a natural tendency of parents to want to protect a blind child all the time, Ms. Rao said. "When that happens, (a blind child) doesn't learn to be independent," she said.

When Kassie says she can't do something because she is blind, her mother tells her to try. "I think Kassandra in the future will be an awesome person because she is very smart and she is going to get to be somebody. I tell her you can do it," Ms. Cardenas said.

Betty Waters covers Tyler public schools. She can be reached at 903-596-6286 or e-mailed at news@tylerpaper.com.

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